Dog at Rape Trial

Rosie, the first judicially approved courtroom dog in New York, was in the witness box here nuzzling a 15-year-old girl who was testifying that her father had raped and impregnated her. Rosie sat by the teenager’s feet. At particularly bad moments, she leaned in.

When the trial ended in June with the father’s conviction, the teenager “was most grateful to Rosie above all,” said David A. Crenshaw, a psychologist who works with the teenager.

Now an appeal planned by the defense lawyers is placing Rosie at the heart of a legal debate that will test whether there will be more Rosies in courtrooms in New York and, possibly, other states.

The question on appeal is whether the dog affected the jury’s consideration of the witness’ testimony by making her seem more pitiful, thereby unfairly prejudicing the defendant.

I say “Absolutely maybe.”

While it is hard to imagine anything more pitiful that a young girl giving testimony about being raped by her father, I cannot help but think that the presence of the dog — which provided “sympathy” to the witness at particularly stressful moments during her testimony — unnecessarily underscored the raw emotion of her evidence.

Sympathy has no part to play in a criminal trial, just as feelings of vindictiveness toward the defendant should not enter into jury deliberations. That’s the law. Human nature, however, will take these improper considerations into account, even if the jurors are unaware of it. The more sympathetic a witness, the more likely he is to be believed. Common sense tells us this is so. If the witness is sympathetic in his own demeanor or story, so much the better for the DA. But the DA should not be permitted to inject an additional layer of sympathy in the form of a dog which, intentionally or not, enhances the sympathy-value of the witness.

Besides, if the witness needed the dog to testify, why did the jury need to see the dog? Couldn’t the dog have been kept in the witness box out of view?

In any event, even if the dog was improperly admitted to the courtroom, does that mean the defendant gets a new trial? Hard to say. The defendant will have to show the admission of the dog was more than “harmless error” and that he made  timely objection to the dog’s admission.

The full story in the Times is here.


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